Allyson Felix changing sponsorship game for pregnant athletes after Nike fallout

Months after a difficult childbirth, <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/olympics/rio-2016/a/1127176/" data-ylk="slk:Allyson Felix">Allyson Felix</a> is preparing for Tokyo and changing the corporate sponsorship paradigm. (Getty)
Months after a difficult childbirth, Allyson Felix is preparing for Tokyo and changing the corporate sponsorship paradigm. (Getty)

Following a difficult premature childbirth that risked her and her newborn child’s health in November, Allyson Felix has returned to the track.

With a new lease on her competitive track career, America’s most decorated female runner is taking on an even bigger cause — empowering female athletes.

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On the heels of her appearance at last week’s USATF Outdoor Championships, Felix has announced a new kind of partnership with a sponsor that’s a direct response to a contentious breakup with Nike.

Felix signs new deal with maternity guarantees

After shunning the athletic apparel giant over the company’s approach to her maternity, Felix has signed on for what she describes as a more holistic sponsorship with apparel provider Athleta.

“It’s a different approach to sponsorship,” Felix told Yahoo Sports. “They are really excited to support me holistically. As an athlete, a mother and an activist.”

What exactly does a more holistic approach look like? Primarily, according to Felix, it means that she’s going to get paid the same regardless of her maternity status.

“The financial agreement will stay the same if I choose to have another child anywhere throughout the contract.”

Felix’s fallout with Nike

Through much of her career that’s seen her tally nine Olympic medals — six of them gold, an Olympic record for a female track athlete — Felix has been tied to Nike, a brand woven into the fabric of track and field.

Runners depend largely on endorsement money to support themselves and their families, and Felix has experienced her success sporting a swoosh.

But a scathing New York Times opinion piece written by Felix in May signaled the end of her relationship with with Nike.

Felix took the stance as America’s highest-profile female track athlete to ponder why Nike offered her a 70 percent pay cut in the aftermath of her childbirth during negotiations for a new contract.

“I asked Nike to contractually guarantee that I wouldn’t be punished if I didn’t perform at my best in the months surrounding childbirth,” Felix wrote. “I wanted to set a new standard. If I, one of Nike’s most widely marketed athletes, couldn’t secure these protections, who could?”

Allyson Felix assembled an impressive medal collection while partnered with Nike. (Getty)
Allyson Felix assembled an impressive medal collection while partnered with Nike. (Getty)

Nike didn’t guarantee pay for pregnant athletes

Felix’s words echoed those of fellow American runners Alysia Montaño and Kara Goucher, who had previously criticized Nike for failing to ensure maternity leave or guarantee pay for pregnant athletes.

Felix believes that her activism and that of Montaño’s and Goucher shone a spotlight on a previously covert subject and ultimately led to her deal with Athleta.

“I just felt like a lot of people didn’t know what was going on,” Felix told Yahoo Sports of Nike’s approach to maternity and motherhood. “I did feel like change happened with that by bringing awareness. Policies did change, and this partnership.”

Nike responded to Montaño and Goucher’s criticism in May by adding language to new contracts to protect the pay of pregnant athletes. A Nike spokesman told the Wall Street Journal that existing contracts wouldn’t be altered, but that the company would provide maternity protections for all of its athletes.

“We will provide appropriate assurances for existing contracts to reinforce our policy,” a spokesman told WSJ.

But it was too little too late for Felix, who ultimately didn’t work out a new deal with Nike.

A new era for female athletes

Felix’s activism and tactic of negotiating her business dealings in a public forum is part of a wider awakening in the world of women’s sports as more female athletes demand changes to what they see as an unjust system that penalizes motherhood and doesn’t give them level footing with their male counterparts.

Allyson Felix points to Megan Rapinoe and the USWNT as allies in a larger fight for advancing the cause of women athletes. (Getty)
Allyson Felix points to Megan Rapinoe and the USWNT as allies in a larger fight for advancing the cause of women athletes. (Getty)

The United States Women’s National Soccer team famously used their dominant run to the World Cup championship this summer as a platform to demand equal pay as the men’s team from the U.S. Soccer Federation.

The women focused publicly during the tournament on the games, but filed a gender discrimination lawsuit during the lead-up to the tournament and have used their victory lap to continue to raise awareness for their fight.

“I’m one of their biggest cheerleaders,” Felix said. “It was just so exciting to see. I think it’s such a special time now in women’s sports. I think we’re just seeing the power of the collective. Just our voices creating change. I hope it’s an encouragement for more women everywhere to be able to speak up and speak their truth.”

Felix: Rapinoe is ‘amazing, fearless’

USWNT star Megan Rapinoe has also used the platform to raise awareness for LQBTQ rights and shed light on social and racial injustice in the United States. And she’s not shy about it.

From taking on President Donald Trump directly to talking openly and candidly about being gay, Rapinoe’s is an approach without fear.

Felix views Rapinoe as an ally.

“She is amazing, fearless at a time when there are a lot of consequences when you do speak your mind,” Felix said. “I just think it’s really admirable what she’s doing.

“I stand with her. I think it’s long overdue. I just think it has to change. It’s not gonna happen without people like her being able to speak up. I’m so excited that the next generation is witnessing what’s happening. They’re gonna be the ones who benefit from it.”

Felix’s recovery from emergency child birth

As for Felix’s track career, the 33-year-old is eying what’s likely a final Olympic push with her focus set on Tokyo in 2020.

She raced competitively last week for the first time since giving birth on November 28. Her daughter arrived early at 32 weeks, and Felix required an emergency C-section due to severe pre-eclampsia, a condition that entails high blood pressure in the mother and threatens organ damage, with the liver and kidneys at risk.

It was a traumatic experience for Felix, but she’s recovered to the point she’s able to race competitively again.

She celebrated the achievement on Instagram last week before competing at nationals.

Sights set on Tokyo

Felix finished sixth in the 400-meter race, an event that garnered her a silver medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

While clearly not up to her lofty standards, Felix came away encouraged by her performance eight months after a difficult child birth while noting that her primary focus on the track is getting back to an elite level of physical fitness and speed.

“I actually feel proud of [the results],” Felix said. “Just thinking that in November I was just thankful to be here. That my daughter was healthy. … Looking back I’m kind of blown away that I was able to get out there and race.”

Her finish could result in a berth in the 4x400 relay pool for the upcoming IAAF World Championships in Qatar in October, a challenge Felix said she would take on if she “can contribute.”

But her focus remains Tokyo.

While she pursues qualification, she faces many of the same challenges that every new mother does. And for that, she’s glad for the opportunity and happy to be supported on a personal and professional front.

“Getting less sleep, being a little more busy,” Felix said. “All of the things that every mother deals with. That’s what I’m figuring out, especially being a new mom. It’s all uncharted territory for me.”

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